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Posted on 17 Aug 2021 in Crime Scene, Fiction | 2 comments

IMRAN MAHMOOD I Know What I Saw. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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The new crime novel from the author of You Don’t Know Me explores the life of a London street-dweller in a confounding situation.

What can you do if you witnessed a murder but the police will not believe you? They have no report of anyone missing, they haven’t found a body, and the scene of the alleged murder does not look anything like your description of it.

Xander, who recounts this experience, lives on the streets, but it is clear from the start of this book that he is no ordinary street-dweller:

Before. Before, when I was like you, I had your problems and your conveniences. I know you think that we spontaneously appear, caked in dirt, and that we just materialise on the street, but we don’t. Remember, we bring ourselves here from some warm place. We only come when the balance weighs in favour of leaving, when the problems of staying outweigh the rest.

He tells us, in the opening pages, that his mother was an academic ‘above all else’; his father a physicist who would set discussion topics for him and his younger brother, Rory, and ‘hand out a prize for the best idea’; and he, himself, ‘slid into Cambridge with four As to read maths’. His childhood seems to have been happy, and we can hear, too, from the first sentence of his narration, that he is literate and imaginative:

The sky is a bruised sea. It threatens to burst and split the night. There is a children’s play park nearby. The gates are shut but unlocked and they push open easily with a gentle squeak. Of course at this time of night it’s deserted and I know I can sleep here until light. Time as it ticks on a watch is not as useful to me as how the light looks when it waxes and wanes. For me the time is hidden in shadows and in the length they cast on the ground.

Xander beds down on the wood-chips under the children’s slide but he is challenged and attacked by another street-dweller. He survives the threatening knife, because he is bigger and more sober than his attacker, but the vicious kick to his temple leaves him confused and in recurring pain, and it is pouring with rain and bitterly cold. He needs somewhere dry to recover, so he consults the map that, over the years, he has created in his head, and which tells him of the relative safety and dangers of various London areas for street-dwellers like him. Red Zones are where ‘the streets have been taken over by gangs’; Westminster, Chelsea and a few others areas are safe Green Zones; Vauxhall, Camberwell, Elephant and Oval are ‘the neutral Blue Zone’.

He is muddled, cold and with a severe headache when he finds shelter under the stone steps of a house near the park, then, although knowing that it is illegal, he pushes open a half-open basement door and steps inside. He calls out, planning to explain that he was just passing and thought to warn the occupiers about the open door. There is no answer, so, when the pain in his head begins to be unbearable he creeps up the stairs and into a large room, where he falls asleep on the carpet. A noise, voices and footsteps wake him so he hides behind a large chesterfield sofa next to the wall. From there he sees a slightly tipsy couple and an argument unfolds and escalates until the woman hits the man and he reacts by punching her. She falls and hits her head on the edge of the table. The man, realising the woman is dead, panics, rearranges the scene so that it looks like a drunken accident, then flees. Xander goes and checks the woman’s pulse. There is no sign of life:

I look around just as the man did, and suddenly I am in this loop riven with his urgency and guilt. I have to escape. I cannot be here with a dead body. I mean, look at me. I’m a homeless man. I’m an easy person to point fingers at. I run back to the sofa and pick up my coat and shoes … I race through the hallway … then run back into the room to wipe down the things I have touched … The police, I think, if the guy called the police and I am found in this state, I will be undone. I’m sure I can hear a siren in the distance. I must move.

The pain in his head disorientates him but he is certain about what he saw and feels guilty for not stopping it. He gets far from the scene and eventually falls asleep in a doorway. When a policeman wakes him, he is sure he will be accused of murder. Instead the policeman sees his head injury and calls paramedics who, although he objects, take him to hospital. He had given his name to the police, they know where he was attacked, and when in a moment of disorientation and guilt he burbles out to the nurse, ‘I let her die. I watched as she was murdered,’ the police get involved again.

From that moment on, Xander’s story becomes a rollercoaster of accusations, misunderstandings, tangled events, fear and confusion. It is clear that he has gaps in his memory, some of them due to his head injury, but some are a deliberate suppression of memories related to trauma surrounding the death of his brother, the subsequent break-up of his relationship with his much-loved partner, Grace, and to a large sum of money which Xander had withdrawn from their joint bank account and left, for safekeeping, with a mutual friend. This money turns out to be of major importance in a subsequent murder trial but it has gone missing.

I Know What I Saw turns into an intense, gripping thriller as Imran Mahmood immerses the reader in Xander’s thoughts, actions and, especially, his shock and his doubts as seemingly impossible things are revealed to him and it becomes clear that his memory cannot be trusted.

When a fragment of memory about Grace comes back to him, he reflects:

Those days are like stones rubbed smooth from years of worrying at them. But they are like relics on a hill – whole but broken off. Even the good ones are fragments of something visual, pulled or glued together with my own brush. I can’t distinguish the truth from the patches I manufacture. This must be true of all memory.

He feels ‘adrift’ and the thought that in the times he can’t remember he ‘did things – could have done things’, terrifies him. He is still certain about what he saw, but proving it seems impossible. He has help from an old friend, from a young boy who helps him navigate computer searches, from a lawyer and from a policewoman who, although carefully professional, feels sorry for him, but the problems seem insurmountable. On Waterloo Bridge:

… the river’s muddy faces swell and shift but they are still impassive, inscrutable. Tourists and workers in suits and coats pass behind me but don’t give me a second glance. I don’t want to be seen. I could climb over this low barrier and slip into the water without so much as a turned glance.

This seems to herald a predictable ending, but nothing in this book is predictable and the final twist in the story comes as a shock.

Imran Mahmood I Know What I Saw Bloomsbury 2021 PB 384pp $29.99 

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy I Know What I Saw from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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2 Comments

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